The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was bulked up some way beyond its core size for Duruflé's Requiem, with three trombones, four bases and over sixty players on the stage. And yet their playing was still of the highest calibre and precision and they retained a good degree of the intimacy that is one of their great selling points, such as during the Pie Jesu when mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch was accompanied by a beautiful cello melody. Koch herself was a last minute stand-in for an indisposed Magdalena Kožená, not that you'd have known from her performance (though this perhaps explained why she exited the stage at the next movement break and didn't return for deserved applause). Opposite her Simon Keenlyside was similarly fine.
However, excellent though the orchestra and soloists were, the stars of the piece were probably the National Youth Choir of Scotland who delivered a superb performance (and are a credit to their chorus master Christopher Bell). There was power when needed and subtlety at other times, not to mention great clarity. The Usher Hall organ also got a decent outing, providing a nice extra colour, at times creating a feeling almost like that achieved with off-stage brass. Conductor Robin Ticciati held everything together well, achieving both suitably weighty climaxes and delicate beauty.
The concert had opened with Le tombeau de Couperin, which is one of my favourite pieces by Ravel. Though I know it first and best from the piano version, the orchestral one is equally fine and engaging, not least due to Ravel's skill as a orchestrator and his wonderful sense of orchestral colour. The SCO played it extremely well, with the Menuet especially beautifully done. The opening movements were a little briskly paced for my taste, and I felt the music wanted a little more room to breath, or even to blossom. That said, listening to a couple of recordings on my return home, Ticciati's reading doesn't seem overly fast, so I may be at odds with what the composer wanted. Speed suited the finale much better, which was very well carried off.
There followed the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's Blossoming II. This is one of several works he has composed around the theme of 'blossoming', such as the impressive horn concerto Moment of Blossoming, which Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic played on their visit to London earlier this year. While Blossoming II uses some of the same effects, such as players blowing into their instruments in such a way as to create an atmospheric wind effect, it is very different too. It began very quietly, so quietly that Ticciati rightly paused when a phone went off just before they began (though the evening's prize in this regard probably goes to the mobile that rang in the Duruflé just before the choir sang "Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death" - indeed). Even then it was a struggle to hear the music over umpteen creaking seats and coughs. According to Hosokawa's programme note, a central idea is that the lower notes signify what is going on under water and the higher notes above, though I didn't always find it quite evoked this for me. However, overall it was a beautiful and involving piece, Hosokawa's use of orchestration was well chosen, and it did blossom nicely. It certainly passed that key test of any piece of new music - I'd like to hear it again (fortunately Radio 3 were there and it will be broadcast on September 15th).
Blossoming II is a reworking of an earlier piece written for string quartet. Despite this, it didn't feel in any way like a lazy re-orchestration, and while at times you could see where its origins lay, it was a fully formed orchestra work, and indeed it has been rewritten rather than simply orchestrated. In a sensible piece of programming, the original is also featuring at the festival, albeit next week. Yet for reasons passing understanding no effort has been made to link the two, neither in the main festival brochure, nor the programme book, nor by cross-linking the respective pages of the website, nor by flyering after. As it happens, I like the idea of having festival themes, but really the festival should be doing more to explain them, tie them together and cross-promote them.